Monday, August 29, 2016

A 12th Century Welsh Prince in America: The Legend of Prince Madog

by Kristin Gleeson

In Washington, D.C. in 1801, a Lt Joseph Roberts, a Welshman, was seated in a hotel restaurant and spoke in Welsh to the waiter he knew to be from Wales. To his astonishment a Native American chief of some minor tribe in Washington to sign a treaty, approached him and asked Roberts in Welsh, “Is that thy language?”
Roberts told him it was and the Native American said that it was his language too. Roberts questioned him and discovered that the whole tribe, located about 800 miles southwest of Philadelphia, spoke the language and it had been their language stretching back generations.

Mandans by Geoge Catlin
The account was published in a Welsh publication in 1805, Y Greal Neu Eurgrawn and in the Public Advertiser in 1819 and was one of many reports that fostered the legend of Prince Madog (or Madoc as it is sometimes spelled) sailing to America in 1169 and landing in Mobile Bay near what is now Alabama.

According to the legend, Prince Madog’s father, Owain ap Gruffydd ap Cynan, King of Gwynedd, died leaving ten sons from several different marriages.  In Welsh tradition the eldest wasn’t automatically the heir, so the throne was up for grabs.  The oldest son, Iorewerth, couldn’t claim the throne in any case, because he had a deep scar across his face. In Welsh tradition anyone one with such a physical blemish wasn’t allowed to be king.  Another son, Howel/Hwyel, who was something of a poet and had an Irish mother, Pyvog, seized the throne and held it precariously for two years. He went to Ireland to claim his mother’s property and found on his return his brother Davydd had claimed the throne.

Dolwyddelan Castle
Against this backdrop, Prince Madog, a much younger son, decided to take to the seas. Little is known of his early years. Legend would have it that he was born at Dolwyddelan Castle, rather than at the king’s seat of Aberffraw and that his mother’s name was Brenda.  He was raised in secret, because he had a club foot, by a man named Pendaran and it wasn’t until he was sixteen, on his mother’s deathbed that she told him the truth of his parentage.

He then spent years sailing around France, Spain and into the Mediterranean, trading in various ports. When the king, his father died and the factions formed Owain decided to leave and resume his sea travels. Navigation was still primitive in the 12th century making such a voyage extremely risky, but as a few brave re-enactors of the 20th century have demonstrated, not impossible.

Judging from where he was supposed to have landed in America it is most probable that boarding his ship, the Gwennan Gorn, and with a crew of about 20, he began his voyage in Wales, possibly at Abergwili, sailed around Cornwall to France, then down along the French coast. It was common knowledge at this this time that there were two mighty ocean currents, one that flowed westward from Europe and the other one back again so that it’s entirely plausible that the strong ocean currents caught him up and took him into the Canaries and then eventually to what is now the Alabama and Florida coast. There he sailed up along the coast and ended up in what is now Mobile Bay, Alabama.  He landed, left a few there, and returned to Wales to bring more colonists. Those left behind travelled upriver encountering friendly and unfriendly natives and built stone structures along the way, until they eventually settled in the Great Plains of the Midwest.

There is no mention of Owain’s son in the oldest Welsh chronicles, the Chronicle of Princes or the Annals of Wales, though there were many called Madog whose deeds were recorded. But many of the old records were destroyed by Edward I.There does exist an ancient Welsh manuscript in the Cottonian Collection in the British museum containing a long account of the lineage of Gruffydd ap Cynan, citing him as the father of Owain and the grandfather of “Madawc.”  In the same collection there’s a Latin manuscript that identifies Gruffydd as the son of Cynan and the father of Owain.
Welsh bards of the early 15th century, before Columbus’s voyage, also mention Madog in their works. (Bards were nearly royal in status and their works carried historic significance, mention). One poem described Madog in this manner:

…Madog am I, the son of Owain Gwynedd,
With stature large and comely grace adorned,
No lands at home, nor store of wealth me pleased,
My mind was whole to search the ocean seas.(Maredudd ap Rhys, transl. from Welsh).

The legend attained its greatest prominence during the Elizabethan era, when English and Welsh writers wrote of the claim that Madog had gone to the Americas as an assertion of prior discovery, and hence legal possession, of North America by the Kingdom of England.

In the following decades and centuries there were many reported encounters with ‘white Indians’ and a few stating also that they spoke Welsh, before and after Joseph Roberts startling account.
In 1686 a Reverend Morgan Jones, rector of a church in Long Island NY, wrote a letter to a noted Welsh Quaker leader of Philadelphia recounting a journey he took 20 years earlier when he was dispatched from Virginia to South Carolina to be a minister to a newly formed colony. He was there for eight months, but due to stavation he decided to return to Virginia on foot with some of the group. On the way the Tuscarora took them prisoners. A leader of another tribe, called the “Doeg” saw them there, and overhearing Jones and the others converse in Welsh went over to them and, speaking in Welsh, told him that he wasn’t to worry, he wouldn’t die. The leader ransomed Jones and his five colleagues and took them back to the Doeg town where he and the others were entertained for 4 months. Jones preached to them several times a week in the Welsh language. Eventually he and his friends left, fully provisioned by the Doeg people.

In 1753 a Colonel wrote a letter to the governor of Virginia and mentioned that three young French priests had just returned from a missionary trip among the Indians and brought back a man who spoke Welsh. Other Welsh speaking missionaries in the 18th century cited encounters with Welsh-speaking natives,  but it was Morgan Jones’ story that received the most publicity. His account was rewritten and published in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1740 and reprinted in the New York Gazette in 1777 as well as various other journals through to the early 19th century.

In the 1790s William Agustus Bowles, Director General of the Creek Nation and also an actor, linguist as well as a liar, adventurer and charlatan, made a flamboyant appearance in London sporting an ostrich plume topped turban and large silver gorget around his throat and a silver tomahawk at his side. The Welshmen present in London society at this time used the opportunity to question him about the Welsh speaking tribe. Bowles confirmed the legend, saying he had encountered them in the presence of Welshmen.

Bowles confirmation fuelled a determination of a small group of Welshmen to launch an expedition to document conclusively the presence of the Welsh speaking tribe. Back in Wales, a similar interest had been fostered. One such person was John Evans who went to America and in 1793 set out on his own from Philadelphia, disillusioned by the lack of interest and funds from his Welsh counterparts in America, to find the fabled tribe. He arrived in St Louis at time when it was the centre of a four-power political struggle. The USA was anxious to expand westward; Britain threatened to push southwards from Canada with their trading organisation; France, in eastern Canada also threatened with their trading companies and Spain struggled to maintain control of this land it owned west of the Mississippi. Jones was arrested as a spy and imprisoned for 2 years. He was eventually released and became a Spanish agent. In the company of two Scotsmen, Jones set out on his expedition. He reached the Omahas and traded with them and ended up spending the winter there. While there, he received word that the British had established a fort in the Mandan territory where it was now speculated that the Welsh speaking tribe lived.

After a difficult journey Evans reached a Mandan village and he handed out gifts to the welcoming people. The British were already present, but Evans ousted them within five days and took possession of their fort. Spain declared war on Britain a few days later. Jones was thereby technically a traitor. He spent the next 6 months in the Mandan territory, questioning the natives closely. He made another perilous journey back to St Louis and delivered his journal and maps to the Spanish. He then wrote a note to a Dr Samuel Jones in Philadelphia saying that the Welsh Indians didn’t exist. Perhaps embittered and angry against his countrymen and a country where he would now be branded a traitor, Jones, many years later is supposed to have bragged drunkenly to his friends that he had been handsomely paid to keep quiet about the subject of the Welsh Indians who were to carry their secret to their graves because disease would soon carry them off.

Mandans by George Catlin
There were other attempts in the 19th century to document the existence of a Welsh speaking tribe by visiting the Mandan. They were found to be different in many respects from neighbouring tribes. They weren’t nomadic hunters; they lived in fixed villages and farmed. Their villages were laid out in squares made up of bee-hive shaped earth-covered lodges.  They fished in a boat that was unlike other tribes, made of will or flexible boughs in a tub shape and covered with buffalo skins (like a Welsh coracle).Their oral history said they had lived much farther south, but had been driven north and west by their enemies. The men grew beards and their hair grew grey with age and many had blue eyes with fair complexions and blonde or reddish hair. In 1833-34, the renowned painter of various tribes, George Catlin, mentored by the famous explorer William Clark, stayed among the Mandan with a German nobleman. He saw no reason to disagree with previous statements about the Mandan. Catlin emphasised in his own reports that their hair was finer, more dark brown than black, and that a few had fair hair. Their eyes weren’t black, but brown or sometimes even grey.  His portraits show the women with beautifully chiselled faces, large bright blue eyes, long noses and thin cupid bow lips.
Plaque at Mobile Bay
Were the Welsh really in America in the 12th century? There is no apparent strong archaeological proof of this voyage in any part of America, but there exist in Alabama, Georgia and Tennesee at least three heavy stone fortifications which archaelogists agree were built a few hundred years before Columbus arrived and are unlike any known Native American defence works. All three are thought to be the work of one group of people within a single generation. These forts are located close to the Dog River (formerly known as the Mad Dog River) that other rivers that connect to the entrance to Mobile Bay.

There are many legends and even some petroglyphs that suggest the presence of Europeans before Columbus and even before Eric the Red, but the Legend of Prince Madog of Wales has all the elements of romantic tale that never seems to die.


Kristin Gleeson has a Ph.D. in history and a Masters of Library Science. She writes historical novels and non-fiction history.One of her novels, Along the Far Shores features the Welsh legend and is told through the eyes of an Irish woman who is washed ashore on the gulf coast and must try and find her way back to Prince Madog and his crew. You can find more about Kristin Gleeson on her website.


  1. Wonderful story - so many of the details fascinate me and could inspire many different novels!

  2. Great article. Been fascinated by Europeans in North America for a long time, although have to admit that most of my reading has been of the Viking explorers. But living in Wales, I had heard of Prince Madog so grateful to read more... and have discovered your novel = a must read.

  3. Never heard of this fascinating story! Thank you!

  4. Fan-TASTIC article... I'm completely fascinated with this and will be doing more research.


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